This little article was aimed at cataloging the origins of the steamer pier at Kames, on the Kerry shore of the Kyles of Bute, just a mile or so from Auchenlochan and a few miles from Tighnabruaich. However, the impact of the Kames Gunpowder Works in the development of the surrounding area has held a fascination for me over the years. What follows is a brief account of the Gunpowder Works and this is followed by an account of the subsequent feuing and the construction of the steamer pier to anchor the community of Kames.
Gunpowder is a mixture of charcoal and sulfur with saltpetre (nitrate) as oxidant and in 1839, a company was set up at Millhouse, near Kames on the Kyles of Bute, to refine saltpetre and produce the explosive mixture. A good account of the works appeared in the Glasgow Herald in 1853.
“Kames Gunpowder Company’s Works.—(from the Greenock Advertiser.) Among the many steamers of all forms and sizes that navigate our river, a little screw, always trig and neat, which appears almost daily, it would seem in the stream opposite our harbours, must have attracted attention. The little vessel, rigged as a schooner, with an auxiliary screw driven by an engine of ten horses’ power, which pushes her along at the rate of Seven knots an hour, as is probably known to most of our readers is the Guy Fawkes, a title suggested no doubt by the traffic in which alone she is employed—the carriage of gun-powder to this port. She is the property of the Kames Gunpowder Company, whose name is known throughout the world as the producers of an admirable quality of an article of daily and imperative use. An invitation to a large party of Greenock gentlemen from the intelligent, active, and hospitable managing partner of the company, John Macallum, Esq., affords an opportunity of referring briefly to the interesting manufacture and extensive works of this enterprising firm. The visit came off on Friday last. In the Kyles of Bute, on the shore of Argyllshire, lies the parish of Kilfinan. About a mile nearer Lochfine than Taynabruach, a small quay surrounded by what wears something of the appearance of joiners’ premises, may have been observed by travellers through the Kyles. From the steamer’s deck on a lovely day the passers must have admired the little nooks on the water side so well fitted for villas, and still more the wild and lofty “hills on hills and Alps on Alps” rising abruptly behind in all “Nature’s wildest grandeur,” and clad with grass or heath. It would be a very great mistake, however, to suppose that solitude is the characteristic of the place, although it must have been so till about twelve or fourteen years ago, when the suitability of the site for a powder work was discovered and followed up. The quantities of wood lying on the shore to which we have already referred, are in course of being broken up in order to their being charred, the process taking place in the houses adjoining, which also contain a cooperage, &c. On the face of the hill above is placed, with a beautiful appreciation of the lovely surrounding scenery, Mr. Macallum’s commodious residence, and the cultivation around shows remarkably what judgment, enterprise, and capital can accomplish in even very unpromising localities. Already the hill side is covered with healthy trees and bushes, enveloping and now almost hiding the house. Little more than a mile over the hill the large works of the company are situated, lying extended over about forty acres of a long and but for them lonely glen. Through its centre runs a little stream the Kames, which descending from the surrounding hills ere long loses itself in Lochfine. In its course through the works it is—with the surplus waters of a large lake it the vicinity, on the margin of which stand the ruins of an old castle or keep called Ascog—made availaible for driving fourteen separate water wheels employed in different parts of the manufacture, aided moreover by four steam engines—making altogether, with two of the latter in course of construction, twenty motive powers.
“It is not necessary to dwell on the manufacture of gunpowder. All know that its elements are saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, in various proportions, about three fourths of the whole being saltpetre. The three components are separately reduced to the most minute particles, mixed in due proportions, and then placed in the incorporating mill, where for six to ten hours they are ground by a pair of enormous wheels of four to seven tons weight. Of these wheels there are thirty-two in the works. The combined elements are now subjected to hydraulic pressure, whence it comes out in cakes as hard as flint. These are again broken to pieces, and pass through copper sieves, the fineness of which regulates the grain according to the purpose to which the produce is to be applied. The succeeding processes, no less interesting, prepare the article for market. They consist of stoving and polishing, and the putting up in packages of various descriptions. We need not say that every part of the latter processes requires to be conducted with the greatest care. By keeping a “dub” at every door, and encasing the feet of visitors in slippers, every precaution to ensure safety is adopted, and to this watchfulness is to be ascribed, no doubt, the absence of accident at these works, only one serious casualty some years ago having ever occurred at the manufactory.
“In the Kames Gunpowder Works there are employed about a hundred hands, who, with their families, form a community of four or five hundred souls—constituting probably a fourth part of the whole population of the parish. Not far distant is the parish church, and nearer, in the opposite direction, a chapel, also belonging to the Establishment. A neat Free Church is placed at a short distance from the works. An excellently conducted school is well attended, during winter having as many as a hundred scholars, and the greatest care is taken by the Company, and especially by the resident partner, for the safety, comfort, I and improvement of the workers, who all present a remarkably healthy and contented appearance.
“At the Kames works, which are capable of turning out from 5000 to 15,000 lbs. a-week according to the fineness of the article, gunpowder for all purposes is manufactured, the grains varying in size from the description used in quarrying, composed of pieces as large as boys’ marbles, and sold for a few pence per lb. down to the very finest particles almost as minute as flour used for sporting purposes, and sold at as many shillings a pound as the other is worth pence. A large part of the manufacture is what is called Ordnance powder, which is supplied to Government order, and requires the greatest exactness, the supplies being subjected, both as to weight and measure, to the nicest tests by the Ordnance officials. For this article Government itself supplies saltpetre to the manufacturers, who furnish the other elements.
“The party on Friday were greatly delighted with a number of experiments which Mr. Macallum caused to be made for their amusement with a mortar firing a 68-pound shot. various descriptions of gunpowder, the produce of different manufactories were subjected to the test, two ounces, most scrupulously measured, being each time used. The humidity of the atmosphere was rather against the firing; but the Kames Ordnance powder showed an average of 276 and two-thirds feet against the Queen’s Ordnance Comparison’s 251 and two-thirds, while the Kames Crystal carried the ball on an average of 312 and two-thirds feet against another maker’s 230 and one-eighth. Kames Tower Proof drove the shot 296 feet against another powder of higher price which only carried 276 feet. It would be invidious and ungracious for us to make any formal comparison by naming the other makers; but we may say that the explosion of the Kames powders was accompanied with less smoke, was clearer of sparks which some of the others set off in large quantities, and left the mortar almost entirely clean. The experiments were watched throughout with the greatest interest.”—Glasgow Herald, July 22, 1853
Edinburgh Courant July 28 1857
The gunpowder milling process is not without risk and over the years, there were many accidents. Only one had occurred before 1853, that was in 1846.
“Dreadful Accident in a Powder Mill.—On Tuesday morning, about half-past eight, a fearful occurrence took place at the Kames powder-mill, on the Kerry side of the Kyles of Bute. It appears that the workmen were just about to commence operations in the Corning-house, where the powder undergoes the operation of sieving, and where, consequently, a large quantity is gathered, when by some unaccountable accident this portion of the building was in a moment blown into the air. The workmen, five in number, shared no better fate than the building, and their mutilated remains were found some time after scattered at a distance from the scene of disaster. Another workman, who was employed at some distance from the spot, was also severely injured by a projected stone. The scene is described as being terrifically grand; the powder, when ignited, ascending in one cloud of fire, and the report so in loud as to have been heard as far as Inverary, a distance of not less than forty miles.”—Glasgow Herald, August 21, 1846.
However, over the next few years, there was a succession of accidents, all involving loss of life. A few of the accounts contain some horrific detail and the squeamish should skip them.
“Dreadful gunpowder explosion, six lives lost. —On Tuesday afternoon, an accident took place at the Kames Gunpowder Company’s Mills, Kyles of Bute, Argyleshire, whereby five men and one boy lost their lives. The explosion, which, was most terrific, took place in one of the store and dusting houses. One of the survivors, whose duty it was to see everything in order, had visited the house and found all right not more than a few minutes before the explosion occurred. The destruction, of property is trifling.”—Scotsman, May 22, 1858
“Explosion at Kames Gunpowder Mills—seven men killed.—Yesterday morning an alarming report reached this city that the Kames Gunpowder Mills had been completely destroyed by an explosion on Thursday afternoon. In the course of the day it transpired that, as usual, rumour with her hundred tongues had considerably magnified the extent of the disaster. Even when shorn of all exaggeration, however, the occurrence turns out to be an exceedingly melancholy one, in respect of the loss of life which it has occasioned.
“The works in question are situated in Argyllshire, distsant two or three miles from Tigh-na-bruaich, on the Kyles of Bute. They consist of a large collection of detached one storey buildings, scattered over some 40 or 50 acres of grounds. Of these erections, only five have suffered from the explosion—namely, a corning-house, press-house, dust-house, and two glazing-houses. We may mention that the press-house is a building in which the material of gunpowder, while yet in a soft and pasty condition, is, by the application of pressure, formed into solid cakes. In the corning-house these cakes are granulated, while in the dust-house and glazing-house the grains of powder are freed from dust, and have imparted to them that glazed surface with which they appear in the market. It will thus be seen that the buildings which have been blown up are all connected with the later stages of the manufacture. They are we understand, constructed almost entirely of timber, with galvanized roofs. With regard to the cause of the explosion, in the absence of any other feasible explanation it is supposed to have been occasioned by lightning. We have heard from several sources that frequent flashes were seen in the neighbourhood during the afternoon and evening of Thursday; and it is therefore, by no means improbable that the electric fluid had struck the building which first exploded. It was about a quarter before three in the afternoon when the whole country for some miles round, was startled by the tremendous report occasioned by the blowing up of the corning-house. Panes of glass were broken at Port-Bannatyne; and in Rothesay, windows and doors were shaken in such an alarming manner that some people supposed an earthquake had taken place. The sound of the explosion was also distinctly heard at Tarbert, notwithstanding a strong westerly gale which was blowing at the time. So far as we can at present learn, there would probably be three or four men in the corning-house when the accident occurred; all of whom have lost their lives. Had the weather been calm, the probability is that seeing the buildings are placed at considerable distances from one another, the disaster would have been confined to the corning-house. As it was, however, fragments of burning wreck from that structure were carried to lee-ward, and, in consequence, after the lapse of a minute or two, the dust-house, press-house, and glazing-houses, above mentioned, exploded in rapid succession. In the interval between the first and second explosions the workmen employed in the dust-house and glazing-houses managed to get out of doors, and took shelter, some under the steep banks of a rivulet which runs through the works, and others beneath a bridge which spans the stream. The men in the press-house, however, from some cause or other, did not make their escape, and consequently, like their unfortunate companions in the corning-house, were involved in the destruction of the building. None of the five houses contained a large quantity of powder. The force of the explosion, however, was sufficiently great to scatter the fragments of timber and the remains of the unfortunate sufferers all round the scene of the disaster. As we have stated, the men in the corning-house and press-house were killed, the bodies of several of them being frightfully mutilated. Besides these ill-fated fellows, eight others sustained injuries of a more or less serious character, but we believe, none of these are considered to be dangerously hurt. The following is a list of the killed and injured, so far as ascertained by our correspondent:—
“Killed.—Michael Bourke, Alex. M‘Nicol, Colin M‘Ewen, John Sinclair, Donald Crawford, Pike, and Hugh Hunter. Injured.—Henry Harley, Scott, Macfarlane, M‘Neill, Gatefield, John Shores, Donald Kennedy, and another, name unknown.
“Immediately after the accident, the steamer connected with the works was despatched to Rothesay to obtain surgical assistance for the sufferers. From what has been stated above respecting the character of the buildings destroyed, it will be readily understood that the loss to the proprietors on that score must be comparatively trifling. Along with the corning-house, however, a good deal of machinery has been lost, and this, with the apparatus destroyed in the other buildings, will considerably increase the amount of the damage.”—Glasgow Herald, December 5, 1863
What seems remarkable is the minimal loss of property.
“Dreadful explosion at Kames Gunpowder Works.—five persons killed.—Yesterday morning an accident of a most lamentable description, resulting in the death of four men and a boy, and causing considerable damage to property, occurred at the Kyles Gunpowder Works, Kyles of Bute. A serious explosion took place in the press-house connected with the works; the materials of the structure were ejected with great force, being spread over an area of nearly a mile; and the bodies of the unfortunate sufferers were frightfully mangled and torn. The names of the persons killed are—Alexander M‘Glashan, John Carswell, Duncan M‘Pherson, Hugh Alexander Stewart, and George Smith.
“The Kames Gunpowder Works—an important and well-known establishment, employing somewhere about 150 men, and conducting extensive operations in the manufacture of gunpowder—are situated about two and a half miles from Tighnabruiach, in the Kyles of Bute. The press-house, in which the explosion took place, occupied a site about 100 yards apart from any other building, and was thus a considerable distance from the main portion of the works. In it was conducted the process known as “pressing” in the manufacture of gunpowder. It was a building about 24 feet in length, 14 feet in width, and 9 feet in height. It consisted of two structures—an outer stone building of three sides, with a galvanised iron roof, and an inner wooden house or shed, composed of strong wooden bars and battens. Within this inner house the process of “pressing” was conducted, and at the time of the explosion it is believed about half a ton of powder was contained in the building. When sent to the press-house the powder is in a pulpy state, and does not possess equally powerful explosive properties as when, after having been subjected to some four other and different processes, its manufacture is completed. Still, the operation is not by any means unattended with danger, and great care is always exercised to guard against accident. A special apartment is provided, in which the men, before commencing work, strip themselves of their ordinary outer garments and put on what are called their powder clothes, so that before they enter the press- house they may have divested themselves of anything which may have a tendency to ignite. All these precautions were strictly attended to when the men commenced work yesterday morning in the press-house of the Kames Manufactory. Their operations were begun at seven o’clock in the morning; the building was visited by the manager, Mr William Scaly, shortly after half-past eight o’clock, when the men were found in excellent spirits, working in the usual manner, and equally with himself inapprehensive of any danger; but at about ten minutes to nine o’clock, shortly after Mr Scaly had left, the explosion took place.
“Little can be said in the way of a description of the occurrence. A loud report was heard, exciting alarm and wonder amongst the inhabitants of the surrounding district; the houses in the more immediate vicinity were shaken and their inmates terrified; and portions of the building—detached pieces of stone, wood, and metal—were discharged through the air and scattered over a wide area. The catastrophe was over in a few moments, and was almost as little observed as it was unexpected. But its effects, so disastrous and painfully sad, can be more easily traced. Four men—M‘Glashan, Carswell, M‘Pherson, and Stewart—who were working in the press-house were blown up along with the building, and their corpses and parts of their bodies were found in different directions, and at considerable distances from each other and the seat of the explosion. A boy named George Smith, who was in charge of a cart which had been standing at the door of the house about to be loaded with empty barrels, shared the fate of the unfortunate men within, and his corpse, almost entire, was afterwards found lying in the cart. The horse was killed on the spot. From a former part of this narrative it will have been noticed that Mr Scaly, the manager, only escaped destruction by a few minutes; but even a narrower and more providential escape was made by John Gillies, the driver of the cart. He had only left the cart in charge of Smith about a minute previous to the explosion, and had retired to behind a dyke some 30 or 40 yards distant. A large portion of the building passed over his head; and part of the falling debris and stones overturned pieces of the dyke, and fell thick and close around him. But, fortunately, he came out of the wreck unhurt, though, of course, greatly alarmed. Pieces of stone and wood and iron; as already stated, were propelled considerable distances, and thus the occupants of the dwellings in the neighbourhood of the works were exposed to considerable danger. Mr William Scaly, jun., when coming out of his house, about 150 yards distant, was either struck by one of those flying stones, or, in the fright, fell to the ground, receiving a slight wound about the ear and other injuries, though, happily, not of a serious nature. A heavy piece of stone or metal alighted on the ridge of one of the workmen’s houses, and fell through the roof into a sleeping apartment, breaking a bed from which two children not long before bad risen. When the stone fell, leaving a hole of about a foot wide in the roof, the children were in the room, but, fortunately, were standing at the opposite side of it in front of the fire-place, and so avoided injury. In a dwelling occupied by a man named M‘Kellar, about 250 yards apart from the press-house, a child of tender years sustained a skin wound by the fall of some plaster, caused by the shaking of the building. Other persons were struck by pieces of glass and stone, but only received slight injuries.
“While the destruction of human life has thus been so great, the damage to property, though considerable, is not very extensive. Of course the press-house is completely destroyed. Some damage has been done to the roof of the nearest stable, about 100 yards from the seat of the explosion—the wooden couples having been started and forced over the walls. Slates have been dislodged from the roofs of other houses, and in a good many cases window panes have been completely shattered. The dwellings of the people living in the neighbourhood are pretty widely apart from each other; had they clustered together more, in all likelihood the damage done would have been greater.
“It is needless to say that the occurrence caused great excitement amongst the population of the surrounding neighbourhood. The inhabitants of the village of Tighnabruaich and the farmers and cottars residing in the vicinity quickly assembled at the powder works. The melancholy task the gathering the remains of the killed was gone about in sad silence. The widows of the deceased men, who live at a considerable distance from the works—those of Carswell, M‘Pherson, and Stewart living about a mile and a half off in one direction, at the cottar-houses on the farm of Stealiag, and Mrs M‘Glashan in the other direction, midway between Tighnabruaich and Kames—were very properly not communicated with until this distressing work had been finished. Their distress is great, as the calamity which has overtaken them is undoubtedly at once sharp and severe, and it has elicited the sympathy of the entire neighbourhood. The four men were held in high estimation, alike by their employers and fellow-workmen. They were steady and experienced in their work, and when this is remembered, the cause of the explosion is all the more inexplicable. Alexander M‘Glashan, who was between 50 and 60 years of age, had been in the service of the Kames Gunpowder Works Company for a dozen or fourteen years. He has left a widow and a son, a young man, engaged as tutor for in family of Sir Noel Paton in Edinburgh. John Carsewell, who was about the same age, had rendered even a more lengthened service to the company—having been in their employment for 17 or 18 years. He has left a widow and a grown-up family. Duncan M‘Pherson, who was 34 years of age, and has left a widow and a small family, had been connected with the works for 10 or 12 years, and Hugh Alexander Stewart, who was about 36 years of age, and has left a widow and a young family of four chiildren, had been employed at the works for from between 8 and 10 years. The boy, George Smith, was 15 or 16 years of age. We understand the corpses are to be interred to-day by the Company. The news of the catastrophe spread rapidly over the numerous villages planted along the West Coast, and most alarming and exaggerated rumours were put in circulation. The noise caused by the explosion was distinctly heard at Rothesay—a distance of more than eight miles—and a considerable number of people assembled on the quay in the afternoon, and awaited the arrival of the Pioneer, from Ardrishaig, in the hope of obtaining some reliable intelligence regarding the accident. Mr Barclay, one of the superintendents of the works, travelled from Tighnabruaich to Greenock by the Pioneer, and thence proceeded per rail to Glasgow, to submit an official report regarding the occurrence to Mr John Hunter, manager of the works, 25 St Enoch Square.
“It may be mentioned that Dr M‘Kenzie, of Tighnabruaich, arrived at Kames about half an hour after the explosion, and Dr Reid, of Rothesay, reached the ground at about half-past eleven o’clock, but of course little medical attention was required at their hands.
“The accident will not in any way interfere with the operations of the Gunpowder Works. The company had other buildings and appliances in reserve, which can be suitably substituted for those destroyed; and thus no suspension of labour will be necessitated.”—Glasgow Herald, March 12, 1870
The company had its own stone quay at Kames on the Kyles of Bute—Black Quay—and the little steamer, Guy Fawkes, carried the commerce between there and Greenock. The Guy Fawkes was just over 63 feet in length and 14 feet in breadth and was built by Napier and Crichton of Glasgow 1849. She was run down by the Earl of Carlisle off Kempock Point on December 29, 1864, with the loss of four of her five-man crew.
“Collision this morning off Kempock Point.—Steamer run down and four men drowned.—A fatal disaster occurred the river this morning, by which the s.s. Guy Fawkes, was run down by the Dublin steamer Earl of Carlisle, and all her crew, with the exception one, man, were drowned. We gather the following particulars of the very painful affair partly from the survivor.
“The Guy Fawkes is a small two-masted screw steamer of 34 tons register, built at Glasgow in 1849, and is owned the Kames Gunpowder Company. Her trade was to ply between the powder works of the Company and other ports on the coast where the Company did business. Late last night she finished loading a cargo of nitrate of soda at Barr’s Breast, East India harbour, and immediately thereafter hauled out to the stream where she was moored, ready to start on her out trip to Kames. This morning, about six o’clock, she started down the river. Her crew consisted of Archibald Campbell, aged 30, master, who also kept the Post Office at Tighnabruaigh, married, with a wife and one child. Duncan M‘Farlane, mate, (the only survivor); Hugh Mackenzie, aged 30, engineer, belonged to Paisley, with a wife and five children residing at Kames; Dugald M‘Kellar, aged 21, a deck hand, unmarried, resided at Kames; and Alex. Thomson, aged 19, cook, belonged to Auchleek Bay.
“The morning was still dark, but the weather was quite clear. There was strong breeze of westerly wind blowing, and the tide was dead low. About 7.30 the Guy Fawkes was about half a mile below Kempock Point, keeping pretty well in-shore, when she sighted the steamer Earl of Carlisle coming considerably outside of her. Both steamers had lights clearly displayed. The Guy Fawkes, nearing the other steamer, put her helm hard-a-port, intending to pass outside of the Earl of Carlisle, and the outer vessel also seemed to port her helm, and so keep inside of the Guy Fawkes. It appeared, however, as if the Earl of Carlisle was afraid of getting too near the shore, for, instead of keeping to port until the Guy Fawkes was cleared, she suddenly starboarded, which had the effect of throwing her round towards the Guy Fawkes, and she struck the latter vessel heavily upon the port quarter, cutting her down below the water line, and at the same time smashing the Guy Fawkes’ small boat. The Earl of Carlisle immediately blew off steam, but passed on, heading towards the Kilcreggan shore, and after making a considerable circuit, returned to the scene of the disaster, where she lowered one of her boats and picked M‘Farlane, the mate of the Guy Fawkes, who, clinging to the studding-sail-boom, was endeavouring to make for the shore. By this time all the rest of the crew had sunk. When the Guy Fawkes was struck, Capt. Campbell gave orders to head for the shore, he seeing that his vessel was sinking, but the water flowed in immediately, and put out the fire. Seeing the imminent danger, he called out for every man to do the best he could to save his life. He himself clung to ladder, and in less than ten minutes after being struck, the vessel went from under them, leaving the whole men struggling for life. The sounds of the blowing off of steam, and the loud calls for help of the sinking sufferers, were wafted towards Gourock the breeze blowing in that direction, and in a short time brought to the shore a large number of people, and several boats were put off in the hope of saving life, but by this time all sounds had ceased. The current, shortly after the occurrence, would carry any portions of wreck up the river and towards the northern shore. The late Capt. Campbell had been four years master of the Guy Fawkes, and was well known for being a most careful man. Besides the nitrate of soda, there were 1,200 empty kegs for powder on board. The sunken vessel is supposed to be lying in about 12 fathoms water, and if so, will be easily recoverable. The Procurator Fiscal for the County is engaged in enquiring into all the facts of the unfortunate disaster. The steamer Earl of Carlisle is in no way damaged.”—Greenock Telegraph, December 29, 1864.
The little steamer was refloated and repaired and remained in transporting explosives until broken up in 1888. After that time until the works closed, lighters were used to transport the cargo. The sinking of the Guy Fawkes was not the only tragedy concerning the transporting of gunpowder from the Kames works. The three-masted barque, Auchmountain, built by Messrs Russell and Co. of Port Glasgow was due to leave the Tail of the Bank on her maiden voyage to Australia at the beginning of September in 1892 and part of her cargo was gunpowder from the Kames works. On the morning of Saturday, September 3, she caught fire and exploded.
“Shipping disaster on the Clyde—vessel blown up—20 tons of gunpowder explodes—damage to property on the coast.—An unprecedentedly disastrous shipping catastrophe took place a little beyond the Tail of the Bank ordinary northern anchorage limit on Saturday morning, and resulted in the total destruction of the newly built steel barque Auchmountain, of Greenock, and of the whole of a large and valuable cargo. The Auchmountain loaded the greater portion of her cargo—consisting of iron pipes, pig iron, beer, whisky, and general merchandise—at Glasgow and sailed thence last Wednesday morning, bound for Sydney, New South Wales. After adjusting compasses in Gourock Bay she was towed to that part of the Clyde known as the Powder Buoy, near the mouth of the Gareloch, and there she received on Thursday the concluding portion of her cargo—twenty tons of gunpowder, which had been specially brought per lighter from Kames. The gunpowder was stowed below the after hatch, and after the battening down process the vessel was ready to proceed to sea. She was detained, however, by adverse winds the whole of Friday. The usual anchor watches were kept, and nothing was observed that in the slightest degree betokened the approach of danger. The chief officer—Mr John M‘Innes Borland, Partick—went on watch at 7 p.m. on Friday, and Captain Jones (who was in command) joined him for a short time at 9 p.m., and as all was going on smoothly Captain Jones retired to rest.
“Mr Borland continued on watch, and at about 20 minutes to 10 he smelt what he thought was the smoke of burning wood coming from a part of the vessel forward. He instantly investigated the matter, and was startled to find smoke issuing from the starboard ventilator on the forecastle head. To raise the alarm, rouse the crew, and call the captain was the work of but a moment, and there being a prompt turn out strenuous efforts were immediately put forth with the view of extinguishing the outbreak. From buckets, hose, and pumps a plentiful supply of water was poured down, but the smoke, instead of decreasing became greatly denser, and—blown by a high wind aft to the only points from which the crew could work—the prospect of success looked extremely doubtful, even at that early stage. Shortly afterwards, when the force pump was got out to play down the sail locker hatch the flames leapt up in most alarming volume, and appeared also from the port ventilator on the forecastle head. The crew redoubled their exertions, all the more so that they knew that, in the event of failure, a terrific explosion would result in the after-hold, in which the gunpowder had been stored. The gravity of the situation increased as the fire, in the course of two hours, obtained complete mastery, and it was obvious that the explosion of the gunpowder was only a question of time, and might indeed occur at any moment. In these circumstances the crew, to the number of 21, along with a stowaway, took to the lifeboat.
“Even at that critical juncture Capt. Jones and his officers thought that an attempt ought to be made to jettison the gunpowder, and accordingly they ordered the crew to return, but it is stated that only about one half of them did so. Notwithstanding that his force was so few in numbers, Captain Jones really did have part of the after-hatch fastenings taken off, when he was forced to desist by the proximity of the flames, and the whole of the crew then took to the boat. At last, when bravery had all but become foolhardiness, Captain Jones and his officers reluctantly followed their crew and rowed for shelter to H.M.S. Superb, the Clyde guardship, leaving the Auchmountain to her fate.
“The impending catastrophe was anxiously awaited by crowds of spectators both on sea and shore, and at exactly seven minutes from five o’clock on Saturday morning there came from vessel’s hold the discharge of smoke which was the precursor of a most terrific explosion. The hull of the vessel was rent asunder in every direction, her red-hot iron plates were scattered far and wide, and an immense and dense ball of smoke slowly arose, as all that remained visible of the whereabouts of the gallant vessel. The effects of the explosion were felt over the whole area of Greenock, and there are fully 100 police reports of the broken windows, some of them the finest plate-glass windows in town.
“The Auchmountain was a Greenock-owned ship, and was of about 1400 tons. She was built for the Auchmountain Ship Company, Limited, by the Messrs Russell & Co., Grcenock and Port Glasgow. The managing owners of the company are Messrs W. Walker & Co. The vessel, which cost about £15,000, is fully covered by insurance. Her cargo may be approximately valued at between £20,000 and £30,000, so that the total loss will fall little short of £35,000 or £40,000.
“It may be mentioned that the Customs officials visited the Auchmountain after the powder was on board, and saw that everything was right. There was a portion of the ship prepared for the reception of the combustible material, and placed in the midships of the vessel, so that so far as precautionary measures could be adopted everything had been done in the interest of safety. The value of the gunpowder on board the Auchmountain was £720.
“The scene of the disaster was beyond the jurisdiction of the burgh of Greenock, but I.ieutenant Detective Rowen, on behalf of Captain Angus, Chief Inspector of Explosives for the lower estuary of the Clyde, along with Detective Gunn, Sub-Inspector, made an inquiry into the cause of the disaster. As is usual in such cases, the fact that an explosion had taken place was reported to the Home Office, who telegraphed to Greenock on Saturday afternoon that a Government inspector would be sent down to make an inquiry into the disaster.”—Glasgow Herald, September 5, 1892
And now, to the pier. Construction of the passenger pier at Kames was begun in 1855 to benefit feuing in the area, and opened the following year.
Glasgow Herald, March 7, 1856
“Kyles of Bute.—The rage for feuing seems to be spreading in this quarter. In addition to the recent movement by Colonel Campbell of Ormidale, we learn that Mr. Campbell of Southhall is taking steps with a view to feuing off a beautiful piece of ground lying west of Colintrive pier. At the Kames pier, we observe that a new shed and waiting-room, covered over with corrugated iron, are being proceeded with.”—Glasgow Herald, April 29 1856.
Glasgow Herald, March 13, 1857
Glasgow Herald, March 6, 1857
Glasgow Herald, May 16, 1857
At almost the same time, a pier at Ormidale was opened and there was an opportunity for an enterprising ship-owner to extend service to two new locations where feuing was being promoted. One of the first steamers to call at the piers was an unusual steamer, Sir Colin Campbell, named after the Crimean war hero who led the Highland Brigade at the battles of Alma and Balaclava. It was at the latter that they earned the honour as the “thin red line”. More details of the steamer, which had a bow at both ends and was owned by the Paisley shipbuilder John Barr, will be found in an article on Ormidale Pier. However, the Sir Colin Campbell was soon sold off the river, to owners in Germany, and the Mail, also one of Mr Barr’s steamers, offered a service.
As early as 1857, the Caledonian Railway advertised a summer season connection with the morning up steamer leaving Kames at 7:00 a.m. and calling at Tighnabruaich, Ormidale, Colintraive and Port Bannatyne, reaching Rothesay at 7:45 and Greenock at 9:15 with an express to Glasgow, arriving at 10:00 a.m. The down connection left Glasgow at 4:00 with steamer from Greenock at 4:45 p.m., scheduled to arrive at Kames at 7:00 p.m. where it remained overnight.
“Tighnabruaich.—Kames Pier.— This pier, which has been for the past few mouths under considerable repair, has been lengthened 40 feet and greatly improved for the summer traffic. New Road—The new road which extends from Kames to Ardlamont Ferry, a distance of about three or four miles, was commenced about nine months ago, and is now almost finished. A large number of feus have already been taken, and a reservoir is in contemplation, which will supply Kames and Aucbenlochan Piers with water.”—Glasgow Herald, May 14, 1880
On the road south from Kames, Blair’s Ferry was also a point where steamboats called and was the closest point for Ardlamont House. However, it did not develop a pier or extensive feuing.
“Our Tighnabruaich correspondent telegraphs that the roads along the beach have been damaged. The s.s. Mercury, which was unloading a cargo of coals at Kames Pier, was on Monday night smashed against the rocks beside the pier, and considerable damage done to her hull. The men saved themselves with difficulty. A number of vessels have anchored in Black Farland Bay, and no other damage is reported.”—Glasgow Herald, Feb 14, 1883
Greenock Telegraph, September 7, 1886
Greenock Telegraph, July 8, 1889
Greenock Telegraph, May 18, 1891
While the Caledonian continued to offer a daily call, it was the Turkish Fleet in connection with the Glasgow and South Western Prince’s Pier route that expanded the service. On Monday mornings an up express was offered, leaving at 6:25 a.m. calling at the piers in the Kyles then direct to Dunoon to arrive at St Enoch at 9:05. On Tuesday and Friday, the boat leaving at 9:00 a.m. arrived at St Enoch at 1:03 p.m., and the daily services at 1:50 p.m. arriving at 5:08 and 5:30 p.m. service at 9:03 p.m. ensured that the area could be developed. The down services departed St Enoch at 10:05 a.m., arriving 1:25 p.m.; 2:05 p.m. (2:03 on Saturday only) arriving 5:23 p.m.; 5:05 p.m. arriving 8:00 p.m.; and an express on Saturday evening leaving 9:05 p.m., arriving 11:10 p.m. (August 1891)
Mercury at Kames Pier
Marchioness of Lorne at Kames Pier (Stengel)
After the Glasgow & South Western Railway took over ownership of the Turkish fleet, the service to the Kerry shore was continued right up until the first world war. In 1921, the Gunpowder Works closed.
One of the delights of postcards from the villages on the Kyles of Bute is the work of Cuthbert Spencer, the Tighnabruaich photographer.
Kames from the Pier (Spencer)
Shore road Kames (Spencer)
The shore road at Kames (Spencer)
The shore at Kames (Spencer)
Lord of the Isles approaching Kames (Spencer)
Lord of the Isles approaching Kames (Spencer)
The Kyles service was carried on by the L.M.S. and the steamer spent overnight at the pier. Calls from excursions and particularly the “Round Bute” cruise offered by the Lord of the Isles continued through the early 1920s but the ease of motor transport to nearby Auchenlochan and Tighnabruaich ensured that the days of Kames Pier were numbered. The pier was closed in 1928.
Kames pier in 1955 (Valentine)